BildePalm Springs’ Ron Oden, one of the nation’s few openly gay black politicians, hopes to replace Republican Bonnie Garcia.

By Jonathan Abrams
Times Staff Writer

May 8, 2006

The two events are separated by thousands of miles and almost half a century, yet they never stray far from Ron Oden’s mind.

As a child, he remembers hiding beneath a kitchen table when members of the Ku Klux Klan showed up at his grandfather’s Alabama home. Decades later, when he was marching in a San Diego gay rights parade, tear gas was tossed into the crowd and sent him scurrying for cover.

The first incident opened Oden’s eyes to discrimination. The second persuaded Oden, by then a Palm Springs councilman, to publicly reveal that he was gay.

Oden, 56, one of the country’s few openly gay black politicians, accepts that some may view his race and sexuality as a double whammy. It is something he has dealt with for years while rising through the ranks of the City Council to become mayor and now embarking on a second run at a higher elected office.

Oden said the klansmen in Alabama left without incident, probably after they caught a glimpse of his grandfather’s shotgun, and in San Diego, neighbors came to his aid to help wash away traces of tear gas. Both incidents still resonate for Oden, who considers equal rights among his top political priorities.

"Both had a profound impact," Oden said. "When they threw the can [of tear gas] it took me back to the place where people wanted to hurt others for something they had no control over, and that’s not right."

Oden, a longtime Democrat, hopes to unseat incumbent Republican Bonnie Garcia later this year in the 80th Assembly District, an area that stretches from the Coachella Valley across eastern Riverside County and includes all of Imperial County.

He will first have to beat fellow Democrat Steve Clute, a former member of the Assembly, in the June primary.

"It’s a natural transition," said Oden, who was trounced by Republican Mary Bono, the popular widow of singer Sonny Bono, in a bid for a congressional seat six years ago. "I think I’ll bring a measure of hope to people in the district."

Oden, on the Palm Springs City Council since 1995, said that the local level has heard enough of his voice, but he believes he can still aid the region. His campaign will focus on improving education, on economic and health issues and on promoting equality.

He refrains from using words like trailblazer or pioneer when describing his tenure as mayor.

"I carry a tremendous weight that I didn’t bargain for, but I understand the reality of it," Oden said.

Ken Reeves, mayor of Cambridge, Mass., and believed to be the country’s first openly gay, black mayor, said he could empathize with Oden.

"Success in politics has a lot to do with choosing the right race," Reeves said. "He’s been mayor for a while and done a good job and I’m sure he’ll be running on that."

Oden is well-liked in Palm Springs. The city is a popular vacation destination and internationally known gay tourist mecca. Gays are estimated to make up more than a third of the city’s nearly 50,000 residents.

"Ron has brought together different communities, gay and straight," said John Williams, owner of a Palm Springs hotel that caters to gays.

But there have been difficulties during his tenure as well.

A recent attempt to turn the O’Donnell Golf Club into a public course brought a strong outcry from club members, including fellow Councilman Chris Mills. The issue has yet to be resolved.

Local labor organizers also criticize Oden for his support of a Wal-Mart Supercenter two years ago, and his disapproval of attempts to unionize workers at the city’s Spa Resort Casino.

Joseph Duffle, a labor union representative, called Oden a liar, saying he turned his back on labor issues when he voted for the supercenter.

But Hal Ball, Oden’s campaign manager, said Oden had been misunderstood and that the mayor never said he would vote against the Wal-Mart.

"Ron represents all the city and not just one person," Ball said. "Joe decided to go against Ron and he’s done that."

Including meetings, charitable work and public appearances, a typical Oden day is a 12-hour tour through the city and surrounding area.

The mayor’s position is part time, but Oden, living on savings, treats it as a full-time job.

"There’s no way I can be at all the places people want me to be," Oden said. "Not even if they had cloning perfected."

Oden, born in Detroit but reared in Southern California, holds degrees in sociology, history and theology. He is a Seventh-Day Adventist minister, but stepped away from the church shortly before entering politics.

In 1989, with his marriage of 12 years fraying as he struggled with his sexuality, he accompanied his brother, George, on a vacation to Palm Springs.

He says he experienced an epiphany as he entered the city. He ran from the car in tears feeling that he was home.

The account sounds surreal and corny at points, but Oden swears by it.

"It was as though something was speaking to me or drawing me," he said.

He moved to the city a couple of months later, first teaching at the College of the Desert and then making what he calls a seamless transition into politics.

City residents are caught more off guard by his race than his sexual orientation, Oden said. It has led to some awkward moments at public functions.

"They’ll announce my name and I’ll walk up to a podium and people will still be looking for the mayor," Oden said. "That’s where you have to have a sense of humor about life."

That same good-natured attitude also helps him cope with what could have been a difficult family situation. His former wife had her New Orleans home damaged by Hurricane Katrina, and she and Oden’s two daughters relocated to Palm Springs.

"She’s the mother of my children," Oden said. "The fact that she needs my assistance is no problem whatsoever."

His oldest daughter has since moved to Upland with her husband.

If his bid for the Assembly seat is successful, Oden believes his political career could skyrocket.

"This is America," he said. "The sky is the limit, and there are no barriers or limitations."